The Birds Are Back

Spring is here!

By Maria DeLaundreau, Minnesota GreenCorps

Think about that moment when you first notice a robin after a hard winter. For many, seeing a robin return is the first cheering sign that spring is on its way.

For some, bird migration is a defining characteristic of the spring season. We may take our wildly colorful and cacophonous spring for granted, but here in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area we are actually in a bird migration hot spot because we are located on a migration “highway,” the Mississippi River Flyway.

Of the four major North American flyways, ours is particularly important because nearly half of North America’s bird species and over a third of its waterfowl use this migration route along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Some of them, like cardinals, live on and around the Mississippi Flyway year-round. Others, like the scarlet tanager, use the Mississippi as they travel through the heart of North America and for nesting and raising young along the flyway until they return to the tropics in the fall. Some cold-hardy birds, like the American tree sparrow, stay in our park over the winter and then in spring migrate along the flyway north into Canada. Another set of birds, including the tundra swan, fly along the Mississippi River and pass through our park in favor of locations within the Arctic Circle, without stopping for more than nourishment and rest. Because so many birds travel to and through the Mississippi Flyway and our park, we have the unique opportunity to host and enjoy a wider diversity of birds than people who are not in the middle of a flyway.

The four major flyways of North America.

Due to the immense importance of the Mississippi River Flyway, many conservation efforts are focused along the river. There are many conservation programs that work on setting aside natural areas or improving the ecological quality of natural areas along the flyway. You might be surprised to learn the full range of conservation activities that are happening -- and not all occur in less developed spaces.

Migrating through a city environment on the flyway, like the Twin Cities, can be particularly perilous for birds, so there are programs to address this urban challenge. One such project is Audubon’s Lights Out Twin Cities initiative. This program is important because most migrating birds are on the move at night when they can be disoriented by urban light pollution from lit skyscrapers. Turning off lights that are not in use during migration helps keep birds on track. 

Another project that addresses the dangerous urban environment is Project Bird Safe, a collaborative effort of Audubon with the National Park Service and many organizations and government agencies designed to study patterns of bird collisions with buildings. Project Bird Safe is studying which birds are more likely to crash into buildings, what building characteristics are most hazardous for birds. This information is used to design more bird-friendly infrastructure.

During migration, the lights of St. Paul's skyscrapers are dimmed.

I hope during this spring migration you will take advantage of the opportunity to view the amazing number of birds coming from all over the western hemisphere into your backyard and our national park. Parks along the river exhibit amazing diversity this time of year. If you are interested in knowing which birds just got in town, you can check out websites, like eBird, where birders record the birds they see at different locations. Another way to see the bird diversity in the park is to join the Mississippi River Fund for a ranger-led birding and pontoon boat tour this summer. There many options to connect with the birds in the park. When you see migrants, be sure to welcome them home.

Join us for birding and pontoon boat tours!